Wednesday, 30 September 2020

A couple of articles I wrote - plus some extra photos

Hi all, for the last couple of months I have been writing a monthly 'nature column' for my local on-line Newspaper. 

The first one I wrote was in August. It had the title "August - a month of two seasons" and in it I talked about how, in the UK at least, August is both part of summer (with hot weather and lots of flowers still blooming) and part of autumn (if you're a migrating wader for example). To read about that go to :

This month's one, which went live on the 25th of September, was called Ducks, ducks and 'ducks'. In it I propound the theory that, despite what the books will tell you, there are three kinds of ducks:- Ducks that are Mallards, ducks that aren't Mallards, and ducks that aren't ducks at all. To read about that and to see if you agree with me, go to:

And now here are some of the photos that I didn't have space to include in the articles:-

Great Willowherb at Saltholme RSPB, 19th Aug 2020

Toadflax near Redcar, 23rd Aug 2020

Bar-tailed Godwits at South Gare 30th Sept 2018

A (slightly blurry) Black-tailed Godwit, still in its brick-red
breeding plumage on the way from its northern nesting
grounds to its wintering area (photo taken at Greatham Creek, 
Teesside, 15th August 2020)

A Grey Plover changing out of summer (breeding) plumage during 
its autumn migration - Seal Sands, Teesside, 15th Aug 2020

Coot at Coatham Marsh, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020

A Mallard with some domestic genes.
Albert Park, Middlesbrough 12th Sept 2020

A male Mallard in 'eclipse plumage' (see Species Spotlight - Day 31 - Shoveler 
for an explanation of this). Despite his unusual look, this is an ordinary
Mallard, not a domestic one

Male and female Gadwalls at Coatham Marsh, Redcar, 13th Sept 2020

A Little Grebe (not a duck) and a male Gadwall (a duck that isn't a
Mallard) - Coatham Marsh, Redcar 13th Sept 2020

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Species Spotlight - No. 32 - Pied Wagtail

After a little break the Species Spotlight is back, although from now on it won't be every day. Today's species is a bird that is still quite common in towns and cities in the UK - the Pied Wagtail (Motacilla alba yarrellii).

When I was young (probably before I started calling myself a birdwatcher (so really very young)) I used to think that Pied Wagtails and Magpies were big and small versions of the same thing. They are both black and white with long tails after all. However, as you might already know, they are not closely related at all. Magpies are large, noisy (and disliked by many people - unjustly in my view) birds in the crow family, while Pied Wagtails are friendly little things which are often seen in urban areas.

You may have noticed that the scientific name that I have given above has three parts instead of the usual two. This is because our Pied Wagtail is actually the British and Irish sub-species of a much more widespread species called the White Wagtail. The first part of the name, Motacilla, is the genus to which all the wagtails belong. The second part, alba, is the specific name for White Wagtail, and the third part, yarrellii, is the name of the subspecies which in English is called Pied Wagtail, and is named after the prominent English zoologist William Yarrell (1784-1856) who wrote, among many other volumes, A History of British Birds (first published in 1843).

Pied Wagtails (and all White Wagtails) have a distinctive two-note flight call - chizzik- leading to them being called (by some birders) Chiswick Flyovers. Another interesting fact about them is that in winter,  flocks often congregate together in town centres where they roost overnight in street trees or on the window-ledges of buildings.

The dark grey (rather than black) on the back of this
Pied Wagtail indicates that it is a female
(Photo by Colin Conroy, Stewarts Park, Middlesbrough, Sept 2020)

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 31 - Shoveler

For the last day of my 'Species Spotlight Challenge' I have chosen a very distinctive-looking duck, which is surprisingly common in the UK, considering that there is a good chance that, unless you are a birdwatcher, you have never seen one or perhaps even heard of the species. It is the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata). As you will see from the first photo below (which is a free to use image from the internet because I couldn't get a picture of a male in its 'normal' plumage today- read on to find out why that is) the male shoveler, for most of the year, is a handsome duck (a bit smaller than a Mallard) with an irridescent green head, mostly white underparts except for the deep rusty-red patch on the side, and darker upperparts.  Oh, and it has an enormous, weird-looking, flattened bill, which is where both the English name 'Shoveler' and the scientific name for the genus (Spatula) come from. 

The bill is specially adapted (with small comb-like 'lamellae' on its edges) to filter food out of the water  as the bird swings its head from side to side just below the surface. They breed in open wetlands and marshes with shallow muddy pools (which contain lots of the invertebrates and plants on which they feed). Shovelers are quite widespread as a breeding bird in the UK, with their core areas being the North Kent marshes, the Ouse Washes in East Anglia and the wetlands around the Humber estuary. The population is swelled, and their distribution expanded, in the winter, when our breeding birds are joined by those from other parts of Europe. This is when you are much more likely to see them - even in the middle of London where they can be observed at the London Wetland Centre (owned and managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) in Barnes, a short bus ride from Hammersmith Tube Station. They can also be found in large numbers at reservoirs such as Abberton in Essex and Rutland Water in the Midlands.

Female Shovelers and 'eclipse' males (I'll explain this term in a minute) would look quite like a female Mallard (i.e. streaky brown) if it wasn't for the whopping 'schnozz' of a bill. 

A male shoveler in full breeding plumage

Eclipse Plumage

Ducks are unusual among birds in that they moult all their flight feathers at the same time (just after breeding, in late summer) and so become flightless for about a month or so. This makes them more vulnerable to predators and so the brightly coloured males of many species, including the familiar Mallard and today's spotlight species the Shoveler, have a different plumage at this time of year which makes them look more like the females and so less vulnerable to being caught and eaten. It also explains why I couldn't get a nice picture of a male in its typical plumage when I went out to Portrack Marsh today. 

There are usually subtle differences which the experienced eye can use to tell which are females and which are eclipse males. In the case of Shovelers these males generally have darker heads, more rufous underparts and they retain a sky-blue patch on the wing (normally only visible in flight). In the photos below, I think the first one shows a female and the other two (the same bird in different postures) are of a male. 

Female Shoveler at Portrack Marsh, Teesside (5th Sept 2020)

Eclipse male Shoveler at Portrack Marsh, Teesside (5th Sept 2020) - hiding 
his distinctive bill but showing him using it to capture small food items

The same male Shoveler with a winter-plumage Black-headed Gull

Friday, 4 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 30 - Lapwing

The Northern Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus), usually just known as the Lapwing here in the UK, where it is the only kind of lapwing  regularly occurring, is a wading bird in the Plover family (I talked about this family in the blog on Ringed Plover a few days ago - Day 17 - Ringed Plover).

This species has been known by a lot of different names in different parts of the British Isles over the years, including Peewit, Pyewipe, Tuit (all being renderings of the thin, high-pitched call) and Green Plover. This last, is what my Irish father called it when I was young, along with several other 'folk' names for birds - Crane for Grey Heron, Skaul Crow for Hooded Crow and Black Hag for both Great Cormorant and European Shag. When I started to become a fully fledged birder as a teenager, he stopped using these names, in favour of what I thought (and I'm sure told him) were the 'proper names'. Now, several decades later, I regret this and can see that these 'folk' names for birds actually make the language richer, as well as being a reminder of a time when ordinary 'folk' actually knew what these birds were, even if they didn't know the 'official' names for them.

The Green Plover (or Peewit, or Pyewipe, or Northern Lapwing) was once an extremely common bird which would be seen all over the country, both as a breeder in the summer and in huge flocks on arable fields in the winter along with its cousin the Golden Plover. Numbers have plummeted in recent decades and Lapwing is now on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern (BOCC4) because of the extent of the decline. It can still be seen fairly easily at the coast or at wetland nature reserves (such as the RSPB's Saltholme reserve, where these photos were taken), but the overall numbers are much lower than they would have been forty or fifty years ago.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 29 - Prickly Saltwort

Prickly Saltwort (Salsola kali (or Kali turgidum according to some authorities)) is a succulent plant found on sandy shores round most of the coasts of Britain and Ireland. It is well adapted to living in these places, where what water there is is very salty and drains away quickly. It has fleshy leaves, which store water (like our spotlight species from Day 25 Sea Rocket, which grows in very similar places). The thick waxy cuticle and the rounded shape of the leaves (which minimises the surface area) help reduce the amount of water lost from the leaves by evaporation. The roots of the plant extend a long way downwards (to reach the water table deep underground) and horizontally, just below the sand surface, to allow the plant to capture as much water as possible from summer showers before it drains away. The sprawling, prostrate growth of Prickly Saltwort, and the rounded shape of the leaves, as well as (probably) the extensive root system, give it protection against the strong winds and waves that are frequent at the seashore - a taller plant, or one with broad leaves or shallow roots would easily be damaged or blown away in stormy weather.

The succulent tissues of Prickly Saltwort (as well as several similar salt-loving species) contain a lot of salty water and this led, in medieval times and even in the early industrial era, to the plant being very important in the making of both glass and soap. The whole plant was burned and the ashes mixed with water. Sodium from the salt in the plant's tissues would dissolve in the water, making a solution of sodium carbonate and the water was then evaporated off, leaving sodium carbonate crystals. These crystals were known as 'soda ash', also called 'alkali' (from the Arabic word for the substance - al-qali). In medieval times the name 'kali' was used for Prickly Saltwort and many similar  species. This is still reflected today in both of the scientific names for the plant (botanical authorities differ as to which is the most appropriate name to use so I have given both above).  


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 28 - Two moths - Angle Shades and Dusky Thorn

 I decided to put the moth trap out again last night, for the first time in a little while ( the gap was mostly because of the rain and wind and only occasionally because I didn't want to get up early in the morning to empty the trap).

More than half of the moths I caught were a single species (and one that I have talked about in this blog before - Day 2 - Large Yellow Underwing), but I did catch three more unusual ones - an Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) and two Dusky Thorns (Ennomos fuscantaria). Although I've caught Angle Shades a couple of times I've never even seen Dusky Thorn before and had to consult the books to arrive at the correct identification (NOTE: there are several fairly similar species of Thorns so if any real moth experts out there think I've got this one wrong, please let me know).

Angle Shades (top) and one of two 
Dusky Thorns (bottom)

Although there is a good chance that you will have never seen either of these moths before, they are both fairly common in gardens in most of England, with Angle Shades being found nearly everywhere in Britain and Ireland.

The Angle Shades can be seen in every month of the year although it is more likely to be encountered between April and November. Dusky Thorn however is definitely a moth of late summer and autumn.

One reason why you are unlikely to have seen either of these species is that they are both extremely good at hiding during the daytime. Although they look very obvious sitting on my garden table, when I visualise them sitting in a bush or on a tree, particularly in the autumn, I can see how easy it would be to walk past without noticing them at all. This, of course, is a strategy that has evolved to protect these insects from being spotted by birds and other predators while they are resting during the day, prior to coming out to feed, mate, lay eggs etc., at night.

An Angle Shades moth on my finger

A Dusky Thorn moth - like the Angle Shades it is easy to imagine
a hungry bird passing this by thinking it was a dead leaf

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Species Spotlight Challenge - Day 27 - Curlew

I sometimes think the word 'evocative' is a bit over-used. However, as it means 'bringing strong images, memories or feelings to mind’, I think it can legitimately be used to describe the cry of today's spotlight species, the Curlew (Numenius arquatus). The most familiar call of the Curlew is a long thin note which slides up at the end (sounding a bit like it is saying ‘Cooor-li’, and giving rise to the name). 

When I hear this I am brought back to several different scenes from my childhood - walking down Riversdale Road in Liverpool and hearing a curlew calling from the mud in the Mersey estuary at the bottom of the road - clambering on the old ruined pier at our regular holiday destination in the remote west of Ireland in the 1970s - being surprised to see one sitting on a fence post at the edge of a field while visiting my grandparents in an inland part of County Galway, Ireland (I had always thought of them as a coastal bird until that point).

The Curlew (or Eurasian Curlew, to distinguish it from its Far-Eastern, Long-billed and Bristle-thighed cousins, (none of which are found in Europe)) is a large wading-bird with a long, curved bill. Although the bill looks slightly cumbersome, it is what enables the curlew (and all its congeners in the genus Numenius) to feed on worms and other invertebrates deep in the mud of estuaries and coastal flats.

As I discovered as a child, although Curlews can be found in the highest numbers on the coast in the winter, they largely breed inland, often on moorland in places such as the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. If you are used to seeing them at the seaside, the sight of a large bird doing a display flight over a heathery hillside can puzzle you at first, until you get a look at the long curved beak (open as it calls to mark its territory) and recognise your old friend from the seashore.

Sadly, the Curlews that used to breed near my grandparents' home are now a thing of the past. The species has suffered severe declines all over these islands in recent decades, but nowhere more so than in Ireland which may soon become the first country in Europe to lose Curlew as a breeding bird ( Although they are faring a bit better in the UK they have disappeared from the lowlands where they used to be a widespread breeder and are more or less restricted to the uplands in the summer now. 

A Eurasian Curlew on the River Tees, Middlesbrough. 1st September 2020